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Putin on Ice

VIENNA – Global temperatures are rising, but the former Soviet Union’s frozen conflicts show no sign of a thaw. On the contrary, the ice is expanding.

Russia’s support for the election held by separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk – key cities in Ukraine’s Donbas region – indicates that the Kremlin has decided to create another semi-permanent “mini-Cold War,” this time in rebel-controlled areas of Russia’s most important neighboring country. But freezing Ukraine’s legitimate government out of the region is potentially far more destabilizing than the Kremlin’s support for the other ex-Soviet breakaway territories: Moldova’s Transnistria and the Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

By blurring its border with Ukraine, Russia is creating a new relationship with an anomalous, internationally unrecognizable entity that belongs, culturally and historically, not to the imaginary “Novorossiya” (New Russia) proclaimed by the separatists, but to the “undead” Soviet Union. The question is why Russian President Vladimir Putin and his entourage view a frozen conflict in Donbas, created to preclude a political settlement or lasting peace, as a positive outcome for their country.

Within their current borders, Donetsk and Luhansk are of negligible geostrategic importance to Russia. Moreover, an independent Donbas would impose substantial costs on Russia, which would presumably be forced to rebuild and sustain an economy deprived of all other foreign investment.